Compromised Suu Kyi No Longer Central To Myanmar Opposition’s Vision – Analysis


By Dr. Azeem Ibrahim*

Aung San Suu Kyi is in jail in Myanmar, at the behest of the country’s military junta. She has been imprisoned since the coup against her power-sharing administration by the country’s generals in 2021. Last week, Myanmar’s Supreme Court heard the latest of Suu Kyi’s appeals against her slew of convictions as she seeks to reduce her 33 years of jail time. The court is expected to take up to two months to deliver its ruling.

Suu Kyi made her name and reputation — and won a Nobel Peace Prize — as a prisoner, under long-term house arrest while campaigning for democracy in Myanmar. Her current imprisonment ought to have restored her reputation as a campaigner for freedom and a democratic heroine. Yet it has not. Instead, Suu Kyi is now a compromised figure, whose own political party — the National League for Democracy — is, while still popular, distrusted by much of the country.

The root of this lies in Suu Kyi’s time in government and how she did not prevent nor sound any warnings about the conduct of the Myanmar military. She did not condemn it as the military launched a genocidal campaign against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group, and drove them out of their homes and villages in 2017.

This was a brutal show of force and was long planned. The events of 2017, with hundreds of thousands of Rohingya forced from their villages to flee across the country and by boat to Bangladesh, were only the most violent and decisive stage of a years-long, military-led genocide against the Rohingyas in Myanmar.

But while this campaign was planned and launched, Suu Kyi was in government. She was responsible for the reaction to what happened. Her party had won a supermajority in parliament after the free election of 2015. Suu Kyi was barred from becoming president because her late husband and children were foreign citizens. But a new office was created for her: state counsellor, which meant she was the de facto head of government.

She entered government not at the head of a democratic party or in coalition with other elected forces. Instead, she was the face of a military-backed administration, in which the generals exercised considerable power. She gave the generals a democratic figurehead and proved to be surprisingly pliant.

As head of government, Suu Kyi saw the military buildup and must have understood its intent to commit acts of genocide. She may have initially thought that it was tactically sound to leave the military to its own spheres. It claimed to be fighting a terrorist insurgency; perhaps Suu Kyi believed it when its leaders said so.

But the rationale of this decision collapsed at the point when the army began committing overt genocide. The time to have spoken out or to have attempted to stop the violence was then. Yet this is not what Suu Kyi did.

On her official Facebook page, Suu Kyi dismissed the claims that the army had widely used sexual violence as a weapon of war — and with genocidal intent — as “fake rape.” Later, she traveled to the International Court of Justice to deny any culpability by the state of Myanmar in genocide.

When hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were forced from Myanmar into refugee camps in Bangladesh, where they are still trapped five years later, she expressed no intention to allow them the right to return or to seek justice against their attackers. She even refused to use the term “Rohingya” and instead referred to them as “Muslims from Rakhine,” thus denying their very identity.

All of this took the military line. But none of it saved her government from eventual overthrow by the military.

Political scientists say that regimes backed by the army are susceptible to more military coups. The military sees itself as the “guardian” of a certain kind of government — favorable to the military — and thus reserves the right to, in effect, step in at will and depose those currently in power. This was clearly true in Myanmar after the apparent democratization of the previous decade. By keeping the military close, Suu Kyi may have unwittingly ensured her own overthrow.

When it happened in mid-2021, Suu Kyi was unceremoniously taken into custody. She had not prepared a means of escape.

For the army, Suu Kyi may always have been a useful fig leaf. Eventually, they were going to get rid of her. Perhaps she had served her purpose — she denied the military’s culpability in crimes against humanity and sold the country’s pretense at having erected a new democratic system — and was no longer necessary.

It is also likely that the military saw her, no matter how deferential Suu Kyi was to its actions, as a threat. She was still popular. She could win elections. At some point, Suu Kyi might start insisting on her own prerogatives.

This seems to be the reason the army saw fit to manufacture further charges in order to keep her in prison for a longer time.

After the coup, Myanmar entered into a state of open civil war. The former government, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, has joined with other armed groups and ethnic parties to form the exiled national unity government. Its armed forces — a collection of militias and preexisting insurgent armies called the People’s Defense Force — are engaged in a bloody civil conflict that is largely hidden from the world’s view due to Myanmar’s communications isolation and the dangers posed to foreigners who try to report on the war.

While the war rages, the national unity government has created a platform for its own government and possible grounds to negotiate with the army. Suu Kyi’s release and restoration to office are not central demands of her party or the national unity government. And unlike during her long period under house arrest, the West is no longer campaigning for Suu Kyi’s release.

This is partly of her own making. Suu Kyi compromised herself for power and while in power. She is associated with the crimes of the military between 2015 and 2021, including genocide. Her party says it wishes to build a democratic and multiethnic Myanmar. Suu Kyi is no longer essential to that vision. And with her close ties to a genocidal government, she may in fact be a grave impediment.

  • Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is director of special initiatives at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, DC, and the author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim

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